Category Archives: 19th century

Life on Hannan World (Part 8)

On Sunday, the Lyin’ King claimed that it was right for British slaveowners to have been compensated millions of pounds for the loss of their slaves. Whereas the victims of this crime – the slaves themselves, got nothing. he admits this was bad but his admission is uttered through gritted teeth.

As one would expect for a Telegraph blog about ‘race’ and slavery, this piece prompts the usual chorus of racist voices to slap Hannan on the back and shout “Bravo”!

Was it immoral to compensate slave-owners at the time of emancipation? That is the implication of most of the media comment that has followed the publication of a study of the records by UCL, showing that several prominent British families received vast cash payments. The Independent on Sunday calls it ‘Britain’s colonial shame’. Trevor Philips thinks it ‘the most profound injustice that probably you can identify anywhere in this country’s history’.

The very mention of Trevor Philips is guaranteed to get his readers frothing at the mouth.  Hannan carries a torch for the British Empire and like so many of his fellow Tories and UKippers, he believes that the only way forward for Britain is to return to its brutal past. He continues,

I can’t for the life of me see why. The fact that people were prepared to pay to abolish the monstrosity of slavery is surely a cause for satisfaction rather than shame. It is one thing to say, in the abstract, ‘slavery is a bad idea’; quite another to say, ‘slavery is so wicked that I am prepared to make a personal sacrifice to help do away with it’.

Slave-owners were compensated because the government were members of the same social class. It had nothing to do with heading off a potential revolt. White slave-owners were seen as superior to black slaves. It’s as simple as that.

The general thrust of his argument is supportive of the Ludwig von Mises Institute’s (LvMI) and  Ron Paul’s claim that the US Civil War needn’t have happened if the Federal government had compensated slaveowners in the aftermath of emancipation.

Here he  sweeps aside the US’s unique brand of chattel slavery and tells us that,

Although slavery sometimes had an ethnic basis, it was no great respecter of race. Muslim slavers traded in Christians: Georgians, Circassians, Armenians and others. Christians, for their part, enslaved Moors: as late as the sixteenth century, hundreds of thousands of Muslim slaves toiled on Spanish plantations. On the eve of the American civil war, there were 3,000 black slave-owners in the United States.

Hannan forgets that slavery – as practised by other groups – did not use race as the basis for enslaving others. In many cases, people were enslaved by conquering armies: they were not seen as chattel. Chattel slavery was instituted in the late 17th century when the notion of race was first mooted and Africans were mainly seen as subhuman and only fit for manual labour. Indeed, this idea of racial supremacy was later given a Biblical justification in the shape of the so-called Curse of Ham.

Hannan mentions the “3,000 black slaveowners” in the United States but doesn’t explain why black people held slaves. Instead, he uses this fact as a deflectionary tactic that has it origins in the LvMI’s historical revisionism of the American Civil War.  Those “black slave-owners” that he talks about were mainly mixed race. Furthermore, the vast majority of those black slave-owners had purchased slaves with the intention of setting them free. But free blacks were also considered a threat to the socio-ethnic order and were often suspected of harbouring fugitive slaves – this gets no mention. We must also remember that the so-called “One-Drop Rule” posited that if anyone had any degree of mixed ancestry, they were considered to be black in the eyes of the law. While there were free blacks, these people did not enjoy the same rights as whites. There is no mention of this either, nor is there any mention of the Black Codes and Jim Crow laws that were passed in many states.

Robert Higgs of the LvMI attempts to defend the institution of slavery and tells us that slavery is “natural”.  Here’s a taste of his article,

Slavery is natural. People differ, and we must expect that those who are superior in a certain way — for example, in intelligence, morality, knowledge, technological prowess, or capacity for fighting — will make themselves the masters of those who are inferior in this regard.

The LvMI has been at the intellectual forefront of the neo-Confederate movement for a number of years. It denies that it is racist and revisionist. It tries to claim that the American Civil War was fought solely over the issue of tariffs and it defends the institution of slavery. Hannan’s speeches, blogs and articles are regularly featured on the LvMI website.

Hannan is a fan of self-styled libertarian, Ron Paul, who has previously been accused of racism and is a supporter of the neo-Confederate movement. Casey Gane-McCalla of Newsone  says,

Ron Paul is a neo-Confederate, and proud member of the Ludwig Von Mises Institute, which has been labeled as a neo-Confederate organization. In the video he claims that the North should have paid to buy slaves from southern slave owners to avoid the war, rather than the South renouncing slavery. Paul also fails to bring up the fact that it was the South that started the war by attacking the North in 1861.

Ron Paul was also was the only member of congress to vote against honoring the Civil Rights Act Of 1964 on its 40th anniversary in 2004. Paul would also claim that he wouldn’t have voted for it at the time, putting him on the side of the racists in both the fight against slavery and the fight against Jim Crow segregation, the two defining struggles of Black people in America.

Hannan describes Paul as “principled” but here’s a video of Paul speaking to the LvMI with the Stars and Bars draped in the background.

As if to echo Paul’s position, Hannan tells us,

Instead, a terrible war was fought, whose legacy of racial bitterness endured for another century and more. Yet, when Ron Paul suggested that it might have been better for everyone had the Americans adopted the British approach, buying out the slave-owners peacefully, he was pilloried.

Yet, there is no evidence to support the claim that there would have been a civil war in Britain had British slave-owners not been compensated for the loss of their ‘property’.  As is often the case with right-wing libertarians, racism is rationalized by using plausible-sounding economic terminology. This has the effect of masking the racism and making it more acceptable to those people who do not wish to be seen as racist. Now they can feel vindicated. They can tell all and sundry that the American Civil War was a “tariff war” and that Civil Rights legislation was wrong because it denied racist diner-owners of the right to refuse service to those whom they believed to be inferior. Remember, if you’re a ‘libertarian’ nothing must get in the way of making a profit.

Hannan may not consider himself to be a racist but he flirts with those whose ideas about difference mark them out as racist. Ron Paul may also deny that he is a racist and a homophobe but the evidence speaks for itself.

Meanwhile the practise of slavery continues in Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad. I wonder if Hannan and Paul would demand compensation for those slave-owners if they were forced to relinquish their slaves? I very much doubt it.

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Spree-killings: mythology, hyper-masculinity and gun culture

Fess Parker as Davy Crockett, a figure that has been mythologized to create an image of American hyper-masculinity

To the best of my knowledge there have been no female spree-killers in the inglorious history of such things. You will know the by now familiar story of the lone gunman or pair of gunmen – in the case of Columbine – who, armed with freely available automatic weapons, visited death upon people going about their lives, be it in a school,a university campus or a shopping mall. I am not trying to denigrate the victims of the latest horrific shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, but the spree-killing seems to be, more or less, an American feature. Yes, such killings have happened in other countries but in the United States, it is an all too frequent occurrence.

When spree-killings have taken place – with the assailant often dead from a self-inflicted wound – the attention of the media and others tends to focus on the mental state of the murderer. That’s only to be expected. Why did the killer do this? Was there any event in their past that set off a chain of events that led to this point? There will be other such questions.

There will be questions, too, about the availability of guns, the largely misinterpreted Second Amendment and the rest of it, but for me, the gun is significantly iconic, if not in its highly mythologized role in the forging of a nation and in the capitalistic sense of defending one’s property, but also for its role in the construction of a hyper-masculine national identity that has become part of the national mythology but also an ideal of American masculinity.All of us are aware of the tales of derring-do about such figures as David “Davy” Crockett – who allegedly killed a “bar (bear) when he was only 3 years old”  – Jim Bowie (of knife fame) and Daniel Boone. Others, like the unfortunate but completely sociopathic, George Armstrong Custer, had their stories called into question relatively recently. The hapless Custer was famous for his tragi-comic “Last Stand” , which was mythologized out of all proportion by hagiographers, who swept aside Custer’s recklessness, vainglory and egomania to paint a story of “hero wronged”. These stories been woven into the massive tapestry of lies and half-truths that is America’s national narrative that’s a massive as The Bayeux  Tapestry.

Women, on the other hand, have been consigned to the margins of historical discourse. Betsy Ross may have created the Stars and Stripes but she was not given the vote. In fact, there is some doubt as to whether she created the flag at all. Other women, who featured in the early history of the United States are the first ladies, who are, for the most part, anonymous, save for a few of them.  Women like Carrie Nation and Susan B Anthony were not seen as women fighting for political rights, but as troublemakers and harpies. The macho early historians did their best to write women out of the historical narrative and they almost succeeded.

Yes, the gun can kill people and yes, I’ve heard the argument that “people kill people, guns don’t kill people”, which misses the wider cultural point altogether as well as the essential role of human agency in the firing of a weapon. But the national myths of a pioneering spirit, backed by the notion of rugged individualism has been embodied in the historically disconnected images of Boone, Bowie and Crockett and has been allowed to seep into the nation’s collective unconscious unchecked and unquestioned. It is this machismo that takes pride of place over anything else.

Guns are a distinctly male thing. Yes, women own guns and are members of gun clubs but there is a phallic element to the gun that appeals to the male. After all, a gun fires a projectile with the squeeze of a trigger. You can fire a gun again and again and not feel exhausted afterwards as one would if one had ejaculated in the same way. Thus, the lack of control exhibited by the premature ejaculator can be exchanged for the perfect control of firing a gun. Indeed, one can substitute one’s impotence with the reliable potency of a high calibre rifle. Just an idea.

These men are alienated from their societies, their families, their histories and their own bodies. Wilhelm Reich wrote:

The character structure of modern man, who reproduces a six-thousand-year-old patriarchal authoritarian culture, is typified by characterological armoring against his inner nature and against the social misery which surrounds him. This characterological armoring is the basis of isolation, indigence, craving for authority, fear of responsibility, mystic longing, sexual misery, and neurotically impotent rebelliousness, as well as pathological tolerance. Man has alienated himself from, and has grown hostile toward, life.

My bold. The young male who feels a sense of powerlessness  about himself is likely to have been alienated from society in one or more ways. This is not helped by the highly-mediated images of the ideal male that pour from our television screens and from the pages of magazines. When redundancy strikes and there is no prospect of work, the only way out for some men is to kill themselves.  Indeed, men are more likely to commit suicide than women. It is possible that the men in question may have a feeling of emasculation as well as alienation. Male suicides are at their highest during economically difficult times. We may congratulate ourselves for our technological achievements, but this has come at great cost to society. In so-called primitive cultures, there is a rite of passage for young people of both sexes, this does not happen in the industrialized nations. Is there a reason for this?

Instead, many American children, particularly boys, are taught how to handle a gun from an early age – which, together with hazing, passes for a rite of passage.  To reinforce this, there are images of guns everywhere and most Hollywood films seem to feature them.  The gun, the phallic symbol of American culture, is at once a venerated icon of freedom and a weapon of mass destruction.

The Columbine killers were said to have been influenced by The Matrix and even though there is a female lead in the character of Trinity, she is a masculinized female, who totes guns and beats up men… well, representations of men. It’s almost as if, men cannot deal with real women and have to transform them into ersatz men.

I am not making excuses for Adam Lanza or any of the other spree-killers but I think that the highly masculinized culture of the United States is, at least, partly to blame for the recurrence of this kind of tragedy.

The fact that Lanza killed children and, more tellingly, women (including his mother) makes this all the more horrific. But it also tells us something else: a society that prizes the masculine over the feminine is a very ill society.  Sadly, this is the case with the majority of nations, which are run along patriarchal lines. But it’s worse in the United States (and quite possibly Australia) where machismo is an essential part of the nation’s culture. What we really need is a balance between male and female.

Finally, the response of the gun lobby has been predictable but characteristically lacking in critical thinking. The NRA and others argue that if the children and teachers been armed, this would never have happened. That is plainly absurd: it is a stage on the road to another arms war. It also sends a message that might is right and violence can always be met with violence.

Reference

Reich, W. (1973).  The Function of the Orgasm. London: Souvenir Press

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The Tory obsession with the past

Given their fondness for the past, anyone would think that the Tories knew something about history, but it isn’t history or the past that they’re interested in. It’s something else. Now they won’t admit it to themselves, but what they’re actually concerned with is nostalgia: the romanticized view of the past or, as I often put it, “history with all the bad bits taken out”. It is a ‘past’ where the rich could get on with being rich. The aristocracy controlled parliamentary politics and much more besides and the working classes and the poor knew their place.

This blog from (Fr)Ed West is a case in point. West asks “What was so bad about the 1950s”? This is a cue for his racist readers to complain that today’s Britain is full to bursting with those horrible ‘coloureds’. West opines,

But what do people have against the 1950s? It’s a strange insult to use because, not only were the 1950s an incredibly peaceful, ordered time but they were also, by today’s standards, very equal (and getting more so).

A “peaceful and ordered time”? I think I know where this is going. But let’s deal with the lie that the 1950s was “peaceful”. He forgets the Korean War, in which Britain was a participant. The Suez Crisis, the euphemistically-named Malay Emergency, the continued occupation of Iraq, the struggles that preceded de-colonization (Kenya was particularly nasty) and the ever-expanding Cold War.

It was a great time to be poor – the first time in history when a working-class Englishman could afford to support a wife and two kids, as well as having enough to save, afford a holiday and, often even run a car. Today, especially when housing costs are considered, that is very difficult.

Hang on, it was a “great time to be poor”? Is he for real? Then, with a straight face, he tells us, “a working-class Englishman could afford to support a wife and two kids”. He deliberately confuses being working class with being poor. I think the less time I spend on Westworld, the better.

So what is this Tory obsession with nostalgia? Is it because their knowledge of the past comes from fictionalized historical narratives? Or is it something else? Early into their government, some Tories were openly advocating a return to Victorian’values’. Cameron even told us how we should return to those days to ‘reclaim’ our industrial heritage (there was the subtext of Empire too). This blog from Andrew Hill of the FT, kicks a big hole in Cameron’s ‘vision’.

The Tories don’t like a citizenry that questions things. In fact, they would much rather we didn’t refer to ourselves as ‘citizens’ but as ‘subjects’ instead. A subject is not an active member of society but a passive one. Subjects question nothing, their role is to accept everything that comes from their masters. They are deferential to authority and are happy to take up arms against anyone whom the state has identified as the ‘enemy’.

The thing that started this sudden interest in 1950s nostalgia came from Pob (Michael Gove) and his plans to revive old qualifications, which he declared are better and tougher than today’s qualifications. Never mind that he insulted all those youngsters who have completed their tough exams by telling them that they have it easy or that he has practically set about destroying the comprehensive education system in this country. For Gove and his chums, it’s all about learning facts, dates and figures by rote. Forget about developing a critical mind. In today’s Britain, questions are verboten. Accept your place and like it.

Even many historians who self-identify as Tories are inclined to revisionism. Niall Ferguson, who was asked by this government to rewrite the history syllabus, is notorious for his ‘counter-factual’ histories. Not content with seeing the past as it was, the Tories want to create a new past in which social reforms never existed. They despise the idea of a ‘people’s history’ or social histories because these tell the real story of the people not the Tory version of history with its emphasis on ‘derring-do’ and Empire.  Starkey, in particular, dismisses social history as “feminized”. This probably tells us more about his misogyny than any concern he may or may not have for ‘real’ history.

In the Tory version of history, the Peterloo Massacre was entirely necessary because the Chartists represented a threat to the ‘natural’ order. The Reform Acts of 1832 and 1867  should never have happened because a modicum of power was ceded to some of the people (the property qualification remained until 1918 and women were only permitted to vote in 1928) – too much, in other words. It also meant that politicians were now accountable to the electorate, which was anathema to those who wanted retain their tenuous hold on power through the rotten boroughs.

The 1950s was a time of political deference that was only disrupted by the appearance of Beyond the Fringe and even then, half of the participants in that production came from ruling class backgrounds (Miller and Cook).  This longing for another age is indicative of an inability to face up to the present or confront the challenges of the future. This attitude is best represented by the image of the ostrich with its head in the sand. Gil Scott-Heron, writing about the US Republicans’ penchant for nostalgia in his rap poem B-Movie,  sums it up,

The idea concerns the fact that this country wants nostalgia. They want to go back as far as they can – even if it’s only as far as last week. Not to face now or tomorrow, but to face backwards. And yesterday was the day of our cinema heroes riding to the rescue at the last possible moment. The day of the man in the white hat or the man on the white horse – or the man who always came to save America at the last moment – someone always came to save America at the last moment – especially in “B” movies. And when America found itself having a hard time facing the future, they looked for people like John Wayne. But since John Wayne was no longer available, they settled for Ronald Reagan – and it has placed us in a situation that we can only look at – like a “B” movie.

B-Movie may have been written about the US but it applies to Britain as well. Instead of John Wayne, we have Winston Churchill or any number of rehabilitated right-wing heroes. Enoch Powell, for example. These figures have been detached from history, airbrushed and re-presented to us as demi-gods or prophets. This shouldn’t surprise us, because the Tories don’t like taking a critical look at their objects of worship. It’s easier to accept easy answers to complex issues and if that means re-ordering the past to suit their thesis then that’s what they’ll continue to do.

Nostalgia isn’t real: it’s a representation of history. Nothing less. Nothing more.

Finally, nostalgia is easier to deal with than history because of the uncomplicated nature of the fantasy. Nostalgia is free from the ugly realities of life. This is why the Tories find it so much easier to engage with nostalgia than history itself.

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Why right libertarians take semantic refuge in classical liberalism

Classical liberalism in action – Victorian workhouses were prisons for the poor

Recently, I’ve noticed the numbers of right libertarians who have suddenly started claiming that they’re really “classical liberals”. Like cockroaches when they’re exposed to the light, vigorous scrutiny of their soi-disant libertarianism sends them scurrying into the gap between the skirting board and the floor of discourse. There, in the darkness, they feel safe. There they can claim that they are “classical liberals”. But their new-found old position relies entirely on the mass ignorance of the term “classical liberalism” and the historical materialism of the 19th century when classical liberalism (then called liberalism) was first applied as an economic doctrine.

These born-again classical liberals will apply the same narratives that exponents of neoliberalism will use as a defence of their doctrine: that wealth can only be created for all  if the state is “smaller” and business is freed from “bureaucracy” and “red tape” and that wealth will consequently trickle down to those below. This, they argue, will bring forth ‘freedom’ but the freedom that they speak of only applies to a small section of the population: the factory owners and the rentier capitalists. Trickle down doesn’t work, yet these born again classical liberals will claim that it does – though none of them can point to examples of where trickle down has succeeded.

So what are the key defining features of classical liberalism and how does it differ, if at all, from right libertarianism?

Classical liberalism’s key features are

  • Individual liberty
  • smaller state/limited government
  • Laissez faire capitalism/free markets
  • Freedom of speech, religion, press and assembly
  • Disregard for the poor and the needy
  • Social Darwinism
  • Utilitarianism

Right libertarians

  • Individual liberty
  • Laissez faire capitalism/free markets
  • Smaller state/limited or no government
  • Freedom of speech. religion, press and assembly
  • Disregard for the poor and needy
  • Social Darwinism

As you can see, there isn’t much difference between either of them and when right libertarians suddenly proclaim that they are “classical liberals”, they are dishonest in making this largely artificial distinction. The real reason for declaring themselves as classical liberals has more to do with romanticism, nostalgia and outright dishonesty than anything else. They want to go back to a time when people knew their place and stayed there. Social mobility did not exist; the working class stayed in their place. They were denied access to higher education and were tied to their places of work. Knowledge was reserved for the privileged and the powerful. In the eyes of the dominant political hegemony, knowledge in the hands of the subaltern classes was considered dangerous (think of William Tyndale’s struggle to publish the Bible in English). Because with knowledge and ideas came the possibility that authority could be questioned, which could lead, in turn, to civil disobedience and insurrection…even though this happened anyway and was met with considerable force.

The neoliberals and those right libertarians who subscribe to the small state notion are actually the  descendants of classical liberals. They can no more return to the past, then I can become the King of Tonga. They have selectivized the past by appropriating certain memories of the classical liberal period, which always seem to orbit the sun-like narrative of the British Empire. When one puts the point to them that Adam Smith’s assertion that “free markets will lead to world peace” is fallacious proposition, they will respond by asking, “did free market states go to war against each other”? It’s a red herring. There were plenty of wars, many of them waged by free market states against other nations. Free trade relied on wars and the colonization of other countries. It also meant outdoing the competition from other free market nations. Presumably, for our apologists, the Opium Wars were not waged in the name of free trade but were waged to punish the Chinese for not accepting opium rather than silver as payment for silk? It’s a fatuous argument but it’s the sort of defence right libertarians would use.  In the 19th century, the British Empire was the biggest drug pusher on the planet- there is no getting away from it.  It was because of this idea of  “free trade” that countries like China were forced to “open” their markets and thus open themselves to decades of foreign domination.

Classical liberals denied the right of workers to organize. It was only when the last of the Combination Acts was repealed that workers were able to organize in any meaningful way.  Socially, classical liberals were very much against the idea of the relief of poverty and sought to contain it within the Poor Laws. The workhouse, which had been around since the 14th century, saw an expansion in the 19th century after the passing of the Poor Law of 1834. Today’s born again classical liberals have similar ideas with regards to the poor and the unemployed, for whom they have resurrected the artificial distinctions of “deserving” and “undeserving”. Any money spent on the relief of poverty was seen as another impediment to the freedoms of the rich and powerful. One ‘argument’ that I encountered was “The working class were richer (sic) in 1899 than they were in 1801”. But this is another red herring: the working class were never “rich” and lived in overcrowded rented accommodation. Few of them moved up the social ladder. Those that did became the petite bourgeoisie: the shopkeepers, market traders or were otherwise recruited as instruments of oppression, nor did they buy their own properties in leafy districts of the industrial cities nor did any of them become industrialists. There was a glass ceiling preventing those at the bottom from becoming say, MPs, because of the property qualification.

The right libertarian is a dishonest creature that substitutes myths and tropes for facts. They extrapolate their arguments from sets of numbers in the hope that no one will spot the flaws in their thesis – which always overlooks society in favour of cold economic statistics. This decontextualization of numbers from the societal whole is their only defence and it’s a weak one. But the worst offence is to claim that they are “classical liberals” when they are really right libertarians looking for a way to divert attention away from their very postmodern interpretations of  selfishness and greed by hiding in the darkness of the past.

The use of the phrase “classical liberalism” by right libertarians is therefore an exercise in semantic subterfuge and should be laughed off as such.

UPDATE 11/5/11 @ 1213

I found this interesting blog written by an anarchist. Right libertarians don’t live in the real world.

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